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Do Stepparents Have an Obligation to Support Their Stepchildren After a Divorce or Dissolution?

Many stepparents voluntarily support or voluntarily contribute to the support of their stepchildren while married or in a civil union. However, once the marriage or civil union ends, for any number of reasons they may not want to continue to support or help to support their stepchildren. The question then arises as to whether or not those stepparents have a continuing obligation to support their stepchildren after the divorce or dissolution because they did so during the marriage or civil union.

The answer to that question depends upon two factors: (1) whether or not the natural parent is paying support or is available to pay support; and (2) if not, whether or not the stepparent is responsible for the fact that the natural parent is not paying support and is not available to pay support. The doctrine most frequently applied by the Courts in making the decision as to whether to impose a support obligation on a stepparent is known as the doctrine of “equitable estoppel.” The doctrine of equitable estoppel basically means that a person cannot act in a way which causes someone else to rely on their actions and then disclaim those same actions if the other person has relied on them to their detriment. Put into the stepparent context, if the stepparent voluntarily assumed the obligation to support his or her stepchild and behaved in ways that prevented the natural parent from paying support, then in the event of a divorce or dissolution the stepparent may have a continuing obligation to support his or her stepchildren. Thus, there needs to be (a) an express or implied representation by the stepparent that he or she will support the stepchild; (b) reliance by the stepchild on that representation; and (c) a showing that financial detriment to the stepchild will result if the stepparent is allowed to stop supporting him or her. If all three elements exist in a given case, then the stepparent is deemed to be “in loco parentis” and the support obligation will most likely be imposed.

The easiest cases involving stepparent support are those cases in which the natural parent is paying child support and has a relationship with their child. In those cases, the stepparent was simply contributing additional funds to the support of his or her stepchild and it would be highly unlikely, if not unheard of, for a Court to impose a continuing support obligation on that stepparent. The cases become more difficult to resolve if the natural parent is not paying support and cannot be located. In those cases, the Courts will have to decide if the stepparent’s actions are what allowed the natural parent to avoid paying child support. For example, in many cases the stepparent has held himself or herself out as the natural parent, the child was never told that the stepparent was not the natural parent and as a result, the natural parent has had no involvement with the child whatsoever, including the payment of support. In those cases the Courts have uniformly held that the stepparent has a continuing support obligation after the divorce or dissolution.

The basic premise underlying stepparent support cases is that the obligation to support a child falls primarily and in the first instance on the child’s natural parents. However, a stepparent will be obligated to support his or her stepchild in the event that the natural parent is not available to pay support for reasons caused by the stepparent.

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